The following is adapted from Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief by Chris Cooper.
“Fitness” is commonly used to describe physical readiness and ability. However, entrepreneurs need more than physical fitness: we need to measure our fitness in skills like mental acuity, productivity, leadership, and resilience. “Fitness” in the entrepreneurial sense is the readiness and ability to perform work.
The Five Fitnesses
The five fitnesses of entrepreneurship are as follows:
• Mental acuity—An entrepreneur needs the potential to zoom out and see the big picture, also to focus on specific details without distraction. Entrepreneurship requires memory skills and cognitive dexterity.
• Productivity—Entrepreneurs need the energy to work long hours and finish on a timetable. While an employee typically fits their work into a schedule, a founder’s work is done when it’s done and not before. An entrepreneur has a task priority; a staff
member has a time priority.
• Leadership—Despite the ups and downs, an entrepreneur must embody success to motivate his team. This means modeling success, communicating in ways that inspire action, and optimizing her team’s efforts.
• Resilience—The mental fortitude to overcome barriers and build an “anti-fragile” business. Resilient entrepreneurs can withstand pressure to protect their service, income, and family.
• Physical—A business owner must appear fit, have an effective method for dealing with stress, create time for introspection, and be healthy enough to make good decisions. Physical fitness creates a buffer to aging and chronic disease. It improves
focus and memory. Physical fitness improves confidence, which is critical to leadership and resilience.
For this reason, we place physical fitness at the foundation of the other “fitnesses.” Physical fitness improves the readiness and ability to perform at all other necessary tasks. This is the 20 percent of your time that will form the foundation for the other 80 percent. For example, exercise improves mental acuity through faster memory recall by removing the fog of stress, sharpening your focus, and granting the ability to make connections between ideas.
Physical fitness also increases productivity by extending your endurance. “Large loads, long distances, faster” is the motto of many CrossFit gyms, and while most entrepreneurs no longer haul concrete, the ability to sit all day without injuring your back requires strong trunk musculature.
Less visible are the physical reactions to stressful situations. When a leader is given bad news, does she slump forward and put her head in her hands, or does she maintain good posture, tilt her chin up, square her shoulders, and take bad news in stride? The ability to face challenges can be forged in the gym. Likewise, when things are good, an athletic leader knows to stay grounded and humble because they’re familiar with winning and losing. Resilience is the hardest “fitness” to qualify, but it’s gained through exposure of “up” times and “down” times. That’s a trainable skill. So is the ability to take a long view when problems arise. And the best way to train these skills at low risk is in the gym.
The Principles of Peak Physical Performance
It’s easy to get bogged down in the ins and outs of optimal performance, especially if you turn to Google to find your answers. Fortunately, the foundational principles of peak performance are clear.
Set a schedule. Your body performs best in a three-days-on-one-day-off pattern. Start there. If, like me, you require slightly more rest, shorten the number of “days on” appropriately (three on, one off, two on, one off, repeat).
Vary your workouts. You need constant variety and bright spots to encourage activity. If your workout feels routine, you probably won’t stick with it long.
Compound movements like the deadlift and squat train huge groups of muscles at once. Isolation exercises, which are primarily done on machines, take many times longer to complete and don’t trigger the same metabolic or hormonal benefits. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is more effective at reducing stress and creating cardiac benefits than long, slow aerobics (cardio). But you also need exercise in a relaxed, aerobic state to maximize your cognitive health. Don’t exclude easy jogs or bike rides.
Eat with your blood sugar in mind. Your nutrition should be aimed at controlling your blood sugar. That means balancing the intake of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. If your blood sugar is low, you can’t think clearly. If your blood sugar is high, you’ll be distracted. I follow a Zone diet to regulate my blood sugar. I’m still tired by the end of the day, but I’m productive ALL day. I don’t get the midafternoon dip unless my blood sugar levels are going up and down.
Have a coach. Personal training is excellent and so is coached group fitness. Either way, you need someone to take an objective look at your fitness every few months, compare your results with previous metrics, and alter your training plan as necessary. You don’t have time to guess. You need a fitness mentor.
CrossFit checks all of these boxes for me, and I’m not alone. Nelson Dellis, four-time USA memory champion, told me, “When I do CrossFit, I feel confident. I feel good. I feel healthy, which in turn makes me feel good about myself, and everything just feels more on point.” Dellis uses CrossFit to prepare his brain for the hard hours of memory training he puts in.
An Optimized Fitness Plan
I attend a CrossFit class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s usually the same dozen people, and if someone doesn’t show up, they get a call from the others. The coach optimizes the weights and reps I do, and the skill focus forces me to concentrate on just the exercise, instead of being distracted.
On the weekend, I bike, ski, or run a longer distance. On busy days, I take twenty minutes after my peak creative window to bring my thoughts back into focus. The cumulative stress of these “extra” sessions is small. They’re not intense.
Each quarter, my coach and I review some metrics: my body composition and my blood work. Body composition (body fat, lean muscle, weight) gives me a gross picture of my overall fitness, but blood testing tells the real story: I can’t fake my LDL score or wish away low testosterone. I can’t hide high cortisol levels. Objective measurements are essential, and that is as true for the health of your body as it is for the health of your business. Based on my results, my coach will recommend changes to my workouts (timing, frequency, duration, load) and eating.
As you can see, building a system for your physical health is not much different than the steps you take to build good systems in your business—and you should prioritize both.
For more advice on business ownership, you can find Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief on Amazon.
When his first business almost went bankrupt in 2008, Chris Cooper sought a mentor and began chronicling his turnaround on a blog called DontBuyAds.com. After 400 blog posts, Chris self-published his first book, Two-Brain Business, which has now sold more than 20,000 copies worldwide. Chris now shares his lessons learned from the trenches of mentoring over 2,000 business owners worldwide in Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief.